Editor’s note: Ján Figeľ is special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU, former EU Commissioner. Mark Goldfeder is the Director for the Restoring Religious Freedom Project at the Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion and Special Counsel for International Affairs for the American Center for Law and Justice. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors.
The President-Elect walks onto the world stage facing a question: shall the century of genocides end or continue? He comes to power amid what has been called “the complete meltdown of humanity” in Syria, with US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power demanding of UN member states Syria, Iran, and Russia: “Are you truly incapable of shame?”
Power’s speech at a UN Security Council Emergency Briefing on Syria also invoked history’s scenes of horror: “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and now, Aleppo.” Her words, while an accurate indictment of the current situation in Syria, are also a prescient reminder that generations of American leaders have been confronted with the savagery of genocide and have failed to take appropriate action.
If the scenes emerging from Aleppo show us anything, it is that the Trump administration must now grapple with this legacy and simply put, do better.
Trump is coming to power at a dark time in the world. Last March, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the ethnic cleansing of Christian, Yazidi, and Shia Muslim communities by ISIS forces amounts to nothing less than genocide. That same week, Congress voted unanimously in favor of classifying the atrocities as genocidal. And yet even after acknowledging that entire communities are literally being systematically murdered en masse, no one has been able to stop the massacres.
This is not the first time a U.S. president-elect has confronted such stakes. In 2008, a NY Times editorial urged then President-elect Obama to take practical steps to prevent new instances of genocide. Unfortunately, we failed then – and we are failing now.
Just this past summer, the United States had an opportunity to exert its diplomatic influence at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 32nd Session in Geneva, and urge them to stop the genocide. Unfortunately, the U.S. representatives did not do so. This failure to act is part of a terrifying, century-old pattern that must stop now.
Just over one hundred years ago, the systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, which constituted the first recognized genocide of the 20th Century, should have woken up the world to the potential horrors of mankind and made us declare, as a species, that we would never ever let that kind of evil reign again. Instead, and literally unbelievably, we have concluded an entire century of genocides only to see it happening again in the 21st.
The current systematic murdering, torture, enslavement, kidnapping, raping and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities on territories dominated by the Islamic State constitutes the very same type of evil that we like to comfortably pretend is confined to only history books. Each time a power-crazed fanatic group is finally beaten down we view the remains and repeat the promise of “Never Again” articulated at the Nuremberg Tribunal of 1946. And each time we break that promise anew by waiting too long, and not working hard enough at our commitment to prevent genocide or crimes against humanity.
Labeling is not enough, especially in light of the fact that applying the label of genocide actually obligates America to take action.
The U.S. has ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article I of which establishes a duty for contracting states to “prevent and to punish” genocide, and Article 8 of which makes it clear that “Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action” as “appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.”
If soon-to-be-President Trump wants, as he has previously stated, to prosecute criminals, then let him hold these genocidal war criminals responsible for their actions. If, as he claims, he wants to take a firm stand against Islamic terrorism, let him take action in a realm where every day matters, where every hour can mean the difference between life and death for innocent men, women, and children. If his incoming administration is frustrated with the international community’s status quo, let them break out of the cycle of weak resolutions and empty statements and taking seriously the U.S. stake in the Responsibility to Protect, a political commitment unanimously adopted by all members of the United Nations General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. It says that, “If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”
Fundamentally, this is not about politics; it is about making a commitment to save people’s lives. In 2016, the American Center for Law and Justice published a non-partisan 7-point plan designed to stop the bleeding before we try again to implement preventative measures. These practical steps include calling upon the various UN organs to formally recognize the genocides taking place and prosecute war criminals, and establishing in-region safe zones for genocide victims, which would also eliminate the need for mass refugee relocation. We urge President-elect Trump to take seriously these and other practical suggestions.
After a fierce election season, the American people are understandably having a hard time trying to get past their domestic differences, but to paraphrase Saint-Exupéry, national unity will not come from always seeing eye to eye, but from looking outward together in the same direction. Stopping genocide around the world could and should serve as a unifying call to action, and a request for every American, including both the President-Elect and his opponents, to turn their powerful gazes outwards. Regardless of party affiliation, we must all look back at our failures over the last hundred years, and look ahead with a unified vision for a more humane century. Our collective political energy could best be spent saving lives, and the incoming leader of the Free World must immediately do his part.